‘Day of the Triffids’ came to mind as I witnessed enormous mounds of golfball-sized hairy red fruits, like peculiar creatures, swarming the area around the central market of San Cristóbal de las Casas, borne in chariots wheeled about by local vendors.
Rambutan is a fruit I was familiar with from Asian markets, but for a moment, I was confused. Was it native to Mexico and I’d thought it was Asian? After all, the pitahaya, a fruit native to Mexico, had become better known as ‘dragonfruit’ as Asian markets dominated its export, after re-branding it with a catchy name.
The subtropical climate of Chiapas is ideal for growing rambutan
In fact, the climate of the Soconusco region of Chiapas happens to be ideal for growing these and other exotic fruits native to Southeast Asia. In the mid-1980s, Alfonso Pérez Romero, a Mexican specialist in botany, brought seeds, collected in Asia, of rambutan and other exotic fruits, recognizing the great demand by about 10 million Asians living in the United States (and Canada), not to mention the Asian population in Mexico itself.
It’s turned out to be a worthwhile commercial effort with thousands of tons of these fruits exported by Mexico to the US each year. In fact, its flavor is reported to be superior to the rambutan imported from SE Asia.
You wouldn’t think such a cute fruit could kill.
More recently, however, an alarming question was raised by this article about a mysterious illness in India causing children to suddenly die. About 100 deaths each year reported over 20 years. New research, published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests they were poisoned by a toxin contained in lychee fruits:
“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”
Lychee contains hypoglycin, a toxin that prevents the body from making glucose. Ackee fruit contains the same toxin and similar illnesses, though rarely fatal, have been reported in the Caribbean. Rambutan contains the very same toxin as both these fruits. In India, once health officials had a grasp of what was happening, and were able to deliver advice to parents that they should ensure young children got an evening meal and not eat too many of the lychees, the number of reported deaths dropped dramatically.
What about the children of Chiapas, Mexico? This new fruit is a novelty: sweet, refreshing and fun to eat. In this state where there is poverty and illiteracy, and where this fruit has not been tested by centuries of traditional wisdom, it’s not a stretch to think that there may be not a few children who come upon these fruits and fill their little tummies. Has this information of the potential harm it can do reached those families who grow, harvest and sell this fruit? It’s fortunate that the native subsistence foods of corn and beans are ubiquitous and abundant where this alien fruit is grown, hence –one would hope – ensuring that those children are not eating this fruit on empty stomachs.
Rambutan may be good for the economy of this region of Chiapas, but there’s always more than economics to consider when it comes to agriculture and food supply.